What’s Your Motive?

I was promoted to supervisor — my first shot at formal leadership — when I was 28. Fresh out of graduate school and eager to climb the corporate ladder, I accepted the promotion without a second thought. I wanted to be a leader, and to be of service to others, but I also wanted that promotion for myself — for the change in status & the increase in pay.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that being a supervisor was harder than it looked. And I had some tough lessons during those first years as a leader. My respect for what it means to lead — and for those who did it well — increased exponentially, as did my patience for those who struggled.

My story is not unique.

In The Leadership Pipeline, authors Ram Charan, Steve Drotter, and Jim Noel outline the shift in attitudes and habits leaders need to make as they move from individual contributor to supervisor to manager and beyond. One critical shift is in how a leader values the success of others over personal success, embracing service to others as their primary motive.

Patrick Lencioni explores this idea further in his book, The Motive. Lencioni explores two motives for being in a leadership role: Reward-centered & Responsibility-centered. Responsibility-centered leaders believe that being a leader is a responsibility. Because it’s a responsibility, the experience of leading should be difficult and challenging. Of course, there are elements of personal gratification, but that is not the focus. In contrast, Reward-centered leaders believe that being a leader is the reward for hard work. Because it’s a reward, the experience of being a leader should be pleasant and enjoyable, and they should be free to choose what they work on and to avoid anything mundane, unpleasant, or uncomfortable.

Though Lencioni describes these two types as ends of a continuum, he admits that few leaders are all one or the other. That said, an individual’s motive behind the choice to be a leader — whether that is as a first line supervisor or a CEO — the core motive matters. The more reward-centered a leader’s core motive is, the more they’ll choose to delegate, abdicate or avoid handling the kinds of leadership activities that they should be doing themselves.

For example, reward-centered leaders tend to see team building as something to delegate to HR, or they expect it to happen automatically, without effort. They’ll also tend to avoid the tough conversations with their subordinates. The underlying belief is that if you hire the right people, they should know how to be good team members, how to behave appropriately, and be able to get the right results with minimal help, support or intervention. When things get tough, they may dodge or delay addressing an issue; they may even “ghost” others rather than face them directly.

When a leader fails to execute their basic responsibilities, employees live the consequences — like power struggles, drama, loss of key employees, low morale, poor teamwork, and lack of trust. Employees don’t know where the “lines” are — how they are safe & what could get you fired — so they avoid anything they perceive that could impact their job security. Front line supervisors dig in, putting effort into optimizing their department. Employees focus on their basic job tasks, putting personal and professional growth aside in favor of getting every day tasks completed. No news is good news’ becomes the norm around performance feedback. Fear of making a wrong decision drives decision-making up the organizational chart — in extreme cases, all the way to the President’s office, or leads to decision by committee & consensus. Accountability becomes something to fear, not embrace.

Without intervention, the organization will become weaker over time — like how muscles atrophy if you don’t use them. The company may still be good, but never great. If good is good enough, and you can live with what you’ve got, then no problem. But if you want great, something — or rather, someone — has to change.

The leader must change — or the leader must change.

Interventions aimed at addressing the symptoms will bring short-term relief, but not sustainable results. I’ve worked with teams who’ve improved their performance & results over a year or two, but the organization was unable to sustain the changes because the leader held themselves separate from the rest of the team. That said, I’ve also worked with executive teams where the Presidents were open to the idea that they were creating what they were getting — both what they wanted from the team, and what they didn’t want. We worked together to figure out how they were getting in their own way — and they put in the work to change their thinking.

Better results came fast, but the leaders needed help to find the beliefs that needed tweaking. We used guided reading, discussion and reflection, coupled with perspective, insight & support — all the activity & connection that happens between coach & client.

In any organization, any and all problems can be traced back to leadership. Leadership is cause, all else is effect. Everything a leader does, says, or doesn’t do or say — it all matters. What you handle what you avoid speaks volumes to those in your charge. As humans, we behave with relentless consistency in alignment with our beliefs about ourselves and the world. Want great instead of good? Change happens from the inside out.

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Susan LaCasse

Susan brings 25 years experience in driving change in a variety of project and leadership roles. Common to these roles were leadership development, process improvement and change management.

Susan is a student of human behavior, constantly seeking the latest in theories and tools. She also understands how organizations work. Together, she uses this combination to help her clients create positive, lasting change. Susan is a unique combination of coach, catalyst and trusted adviser.


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